Donald Trump's inflated ego, global profile and strange idiosyncrasies have made him an ideal target for Saturday Night Live. Combined with the president's inability to ignore the comedy show's mockery of him, and his habit of tweeting about how inaccurate it is, the result has been the highest ratings in over twenty years. But SNL isn't simply joking about eccentric characters and making light of a confusing, chaotic situation; it's demonstrating the power of satire to expose truths and challenge those in power.
Trump has derided SNL as "unwatchable" and said it contains "nothing funny at all". His critics have delighted in its ability to get under his skin and provoke derisive tweets, which only serve to raise the show's profile and attract viewers eager to see what will set him off next. Moreover, his overreaction makes the satire more effective, reinforcing SNL's portrayal of him as petty, thin-skinned and egotistical. As a result, more and more Americans are tuning in: total average viewership has climbed 22% to 10.6 million this season, and 19% to 3.5 million in the key 18-to-49 demographic. That's quite a recovery, as viewership hit all-time lows in 2014.
Alec Baldwin's impersonation of Trump has been particularly irritating for the president, who tweeted that it "just can't get any worse". In fact, it's convincing enough to have fooled a Dominican newspaper into publishing a picture of the comedian rather than the commander-in-chief.
Trump's most revealing reactions have been to Melissa McCarthy's turn as Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Mike Day's depiction of chief strategist Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper. Spicer's portrayal by a woman reportedly made him look weak in Trump's eyes, and may have hurt his chances of keeping his job. And the president was "especially upset" when Baldwin's Trump addressed Day's Bannon as "Mr President", vacated his desk for him and went to play with his toys.
Several factors suggest SNL's revival will continue. Public interest remains high: social media recently caught fire after actress, comedian and Trump's nemesis Rosie O'Donnell volunteered for the part of Bannon (although Variety reports she won't be taking up the mantle). America's tumultuous political landscape and Trump's divisive presidency have made politics grave again, likely meaning people relish a chance to laugh. And the show's portrayal of Trump and his staff provides a welcome catharsis for people who are stressed and concerned about the ongoing chaos in the White House. “You can’t be angry all the time — it destroys your health,” political expert Larry Sabato told the LA Times this week. “So Saturday Night Live, in a sense, is a kind of Pepto-Bismol for the bile that’s building all week long.”
Political satire has long been a source of not only relief, but also opposition in America. Shows like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour provided much-needed laughs and a source of quiet rebellion during the political turmoil of the 1960s. SNL has been down this road before: Chevy Chase’s portrayal of President Gerald Ford as clumsy and accident-prone potentially contributed to the loss of his re-election bid in 1976. Unlike Ford, who laughed along with the parody, Trump is yet to see the funny side. For now, that will only help SNL's creators.